How to modernize your retro game collection in a few complicated steps

I have a large collection of physical video games. Every year this somewhat prosaic feature becomes more and more striking, both in terms of uniqueness and – given the age of much of my collection, coupled with the unyielding passage of time – complexity. As the trajectory of video game distribution hurtles toward an exclusively digital future, my emphasis on preserving some of its history keeps me connected to the objects and, more importantly, the experiences they contain in a way that a digital library cannot . While I understand and even appreciate many parts of this ongoing digital transition, I mourn the transition from a former world where games had a kind of permanence unencumbered by server status or mercurial licensing deals and instead just worked.

Whether inserting a game into a console produces the desired outcome depends on a litany of factors, including but certainly not limited to: storage medium; storage conditions; soldered battery status; video signal; disc drive motors; disc drive lasers; damage to the motherboard from faulty capacitors leaking electrolyte fluid all over your increasingly rare and fragile circuit board, eating away at the traces and perhaps ruining the whole thing does not work. Sometimes I spin around in my office chair to admire my collection, only to be reminded that we are both combatants in a battle against the same final boss: the slow, gradual degradation of the complex web of systems that let us work.

While I’m no stranger to the allure of video game emulation, even my preferred solution – the beautiful MiSTer, powered by some sort of shape-shifting silicon that allows it to emulate hardware platforms with impressive accuracy – can still make me lose that connection to the physical game .

But what if there was a way to split the difference and enjoy the accuracy and simplicity of a MiSTer, but still feel some connection to the collection I’ve maintained all these years? Enter: the simple NFC tag.

NFC stands for Near Field Communication, the same technology that allows you to pay in a store with your phone or watch. In that scenario, both your device and the device at the point of sale are turned on, or “active,” and an encrypted channel is established through Apple or Google Pay to send your banking information. That seems very complicated. In this case we are talking about a “passive” connection where one device emits a magnetic field (this is the NFC reader) and the other device (a sticker or card without a power supply with an internal antenna) modulates that field to provide a simple , send text-based payload, namely the location of a ROM file to be loaded.

I first noticed developer Wizzo’s contribution to the MiSTer scene in a random tweet, when I watched someone tap an NFC card on an arcade cabinet to load a game. My mind was racing.

Sure, the operation of an arcade cabinet makes loading new arcade boards cumbersome, but it also requires you to own arcade boards. This, of course, is the great ethical dilemma of emulation. If you don’t own a real arcade PCB of, say, Cave’s excellent 2001 horizontal shmup Try, do you have the right to emulate it? What if you buy it for $1.99 from Steam as part of the Capcom Arcade Stadium package? What if you spent $20 on it in quarters in the past? What if you just really like it?

To add another wrinkle, what if you Doing have the PCB from Try or, in my case, a large collection of over 1,000 console games? Of course, you could invest in an open-source shopping cart reader, like this handsome one from Save the Hero Builders, and ditch all your cartridges. For games on disc, you can follow Redump’s authoritative guide here – note: use a compatible disc drive for dumping CD-ROMs – or you can use a Google search for “[game title] And [Redump]’ and see what you come up with. I can’t answer these questions for you, but I trust that if you’ve made it this far in this piece, you’ve already come to a comfortable solution when it comes to the origin of your video game ROM files. Safe travels there!

So far we have both video game ROM files (check) and a general feeling of boredom while scrolling through a list of video game ROM files (check also). So I finally committed to the NFC concept, and with one quick order I was on my way to tackling the latter by embedding small NFC stickers that can deliver a 504-byte payload in some of my favorite games , which makes my Fate 32X cartridge in an access badge that can load that game. (Or, in this particular case, the unbelievable Fate 32X Resurrection 3.1 mod, which is also playable on original hardware.)

Now for the how-to part of this report.

First of all, this project is BYO MiSTer. For more information about what a MiSTer is, you can read my explanation at Polygon or this excellent piece by Sam Byford here The edge. If a Raspberry Pi or other retro gaming solution is more your speed, there is some hope for you: the project page states that it “currently supports the MiSTer FPGA platform, with more [platforms] planned.”

Next you need an NFC reader that is compatible with the MiSTer. While DIY options exist, the project’s GitHub page recommended a plug-and-play USB option using the ACR122U hardware for reading and writing tags. “The ACR122U has been cloned for years and is readily available by searching for ‘ACR122U’ on sites like Amazon, eBay and AliExpress,” the page said. I ordered these from AliExpress; However, the GitHub page warns that while “most listings are fine,” some variants don’t work with this tool, so they recommend not buying “the literally cheapest listing available.”

The massively cloned ACR122U connects to your MiSTer via a simple USB connection and can read and write NFC tags.

Next you’ll want to order some NFC tags. There are a handful of different options, with the main differences being storage capacity and form factor: there are cards, key fobs and stickers. I’ve largely stuck with the NTAG215 standard, which offers 504 bytes of storage, enough for the full path of even the longest named ROM files in your collection. As for the shape, it really depends on your usage scenario. My ACR122U came with 10 cards, which I’ll get into below, but for the purposes of this project I used these stickers from Amazon. At 1 inch in diameter, they should fit perfectly and discreetly into various video game cartridges and jewelry boxes (although, at 22 cents each, I wouldn’t attempt to label my entire collection).

Now that the physical stuff is out of the way, it’s time for software. Installation instructions are on the project’s GitHub page, but if you’re already running the wonderful “Update All” script, all you need to do is enable the “MiSTer Extensions” repository in the “Tools & Scripts” menu; otherwise it’s simply a matter of copying the latest release to the “Scripts” folder on your MiSTer’s SD card.

With the reader and the tags you need to write the necessary path information to the card so that the MiSTer knows which file to load. By far the easiest way to do this is to use the script that powers this whole thing. You can load it from MiSTer’s Scripts menu and choose the second option: Write. From there you can select or search for a game from your MiSTer’s storage, or create a custom command to do things like load a specific core, start a random game, insert “coins” for arcade titles, and more. Then you simply tap the tag against the ACR122U and, beep, you’re done. You can test your device in the same script by selecting the Read option from the main menu.

The fun part for me was deciding which games to put my stickers in, and then opening everything up and putting a sticker in it. HuCards are very minimal and TurboGrafx-16 cases didn’t have a great place to hide the sticker, so I did the best I could, while Game Boy Advance cartridges required some careful trimming to fit them without destroying the innards of the NFC token to damage. Another limitation is that once you’re done, loading a game requires approximately some memory Where you kept that sticker because the field generated by the ACR122U doesn’t reach very far. The spec sheet says it should extend up to five centimeters (or about two inches), depending on the type of label used; But in my experience with both card and sticker formats, it essentially requires you to touch the object against the USB-connected NFC dongle. I started thinking about this finicky behavior: was it this side of the cartridge or the other side? – as a welcome analogy to how some carts function in their own hardware. Just give it a little exercise.

Shortly after the NFC reader and tags shipped, the previously unnamed NFC project was rebranded as TapTo, and along with that branding came a host of additional features that, in full disclosure, I haven’t yet taken advantage of. But I would still like to share them with you. The biggest one is this really slick image generator for maps. The TapTo Designer is a web app from Andrea Bogazzi that allows you to “easily add images, which will automatically be applied to templates and made available to be exported for printing.” Just playing with the tool, I’m already thinking of new projects to fulfill the same impulse to try to give shape and form to the abstraction of a ROM file.

I just took delivery of a Sega New Astro City arcade cabinet, another 30-year-old piece of technology that I plan to take care of forever. The caps need work, the light strip is broken, the Blast City single player panel needs to be replaced, and I’m thinking about which arcade games to make NFC cards for.

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